This past weekend, my kids and I binge watched our favorite Christmas movies, watching at least two each day. I had not watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in a few years, and now that I teach classes and facilitate presentations on Alzheimer’s and dementia at least once a month, I couldn’t help but “diagnose” the elderly relatives of Clark and Ellen. For the most part, their behaviors reflect normal aging. I was particularly amused by how the first thing the grandparents want to talk about is their various medical issues, and worrying about failing health is a typical characteristic of normal aging. But Aunt Bethany is different—she wraps of her cat and a Jell-O mold as presents and says the Pledge of Allegiance instead of the blessing at Christmas dinner. I was impressed by the accuracy of the portrayal of her dementia behaviors in that she had inappropriately categorized common household items, and her mind chose to recite a rhythmical pledge instead of an impromptu blessing. And she gets lost in time asking if Rusty, the young son, is still in the Navy.
I recently met with the children of a man who is starting to show some significant signs of dementia. One of the daughters asked me why I thought we are seeing so many more people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. When we were kids, we might hear about an elderly neighbor or relative being “senile” and, like Aunt Bethany, they maybe even a source of amusement. Now it seems like everyone we know has been personally affected by the disease, and it is no longer amusing. In researching this a bit, I found several theories as to why Alzheimer’s and dementia seem to be much more prevalent than they were a generation ago. One theory is that the cases of dementia are increasing primarily because people are living longer. However, a study in the Surgical Neurology International journal found that people are developing and dying from dementia almost a decade earlier than they used to, and suggests that heightened levels of pollution and insecticides in the environment could be causing people to develop dementia younger than ever before.
But I did come across some encouraging news this week too. An experimental vaccine that could hold off Alzheimer's disease showed promising results in animal testing, according to researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Testing in mice showed that the vaccine safely prevents the buildup of substances in the brain associated with the fatal disease. There has been research in monkeys and rabbits as well, and the researchers hope the vaccine will progress to human trials. If the vaccine proves safe and effective in humans, it could slice the number of dementia diagnoses in half.
“Modern Life Could Be Making Dementia More Common,” Danny Lewis, Smithsonian.com, August 14, 2015
“Researcher: Alzheimer’s vaccine could cut dementia in half, human trials may be next,” Joel Shannon, USA Today, Nov. 14, 2018